Albert Pujols is the best player in fantasy baseball, and he had the best 2008 season. Period. Good for the voters for seeing past mere home run and RBI totals and selecting the most deserving player for NL MVP honors.
This isn't an anti-Ryan Howard story. I'm certainly not anti-Phillies, after all. Howard did what he was supposed to do in 2008, and he did it well, better than anybody. Nobody hit more home runs or knocked in more runs than Philadelphia's beefy first baseman. Few, if any, were better in September. Howard was critical in getting the Phillies to the postseason, where the pitching took over and delivered the City of Brotherly Love its second World Series title in 126 years. But Howard wasn't the MVP of the National League. I don't think he was even the MVP of his own team.
Pujols finished first on ESPN's Player Rater, and he's first in my fantasy rankings for 2009. I admit that had Pujols not had that elbow problem, which now appears to be fixed, he would have been ... well, second in my 2008 rankings. I have to tell the truth. Alex Rodriguez steals more bases. He was first. Injury scared us into moving Pujols into the second (or worse) round of 2008 drafts, and he proved everyone wrong. I doubt that mistake will be made again.
In colleague Brendan Roberts' final Hit Parade article of this season, he listed Pujols third in his 2009 preseason rankings, behind Hanley Ramirez and Rodriguez. I can't argue with the shortstop who might go 30/30 or the third baseman who might eventually pass Barry Bonds for the most home runs ever, but ...
Pujols put on such a show this past season, despite the elbow problem, I'm wondering if there's anything he can't do. He batted .357. Only Chipper Jones did better. He hit 37 home runs and batted in 116. Each of those totals ranked fourth in the NL. He even stole seven bases. Pujols is the best hitter in the game, and arguably the best right-handed hitter any of us have seen or will ever see. Howard, basically, is a home run hitter. Pujols is a complete hitter, and the best in fantasy as well.
I'm well aware which player got to play in the postseason and which didn't, and I find great irony in how this MVP race mirrors what happened in 2006. Pujols led his team to October success that season, a statistical campaign which looks pretty similar to this one, then made ill-timed remarks that an MVP needs to play in the playoffs. Now he's the one who earns the award despite missing the playoffs. Hey, Pujols didn't play on a 100-loss team, you know. The Cardinals were in the NL wild-card race in mid-September. On Sept. 19, the Cardinals had 80 wins. The Phillies had 86. Let's agree neither the Cardinals nor Phillies would have been contenders sans their productive first basemen.
The main difference for Howard between this second-place finish and the season he did win the award is that he didn't have the same batting average, and that does matter. Sure, Pujols hit fewer home runs, but his career-best 1.115 OPS is Bondsian. Howard's batting average was more than 100 points below Pujols'. The worst batting average for an MVP winner is .267 for slick-fielding shortstop Marty Marion in 1944. Howard is not a good fielder. Home runs are nice, but they aren't everything. Howard finished No. 45 on the Player Rater, behind Jacoby Ellsbury, Joakim Soria and Shane Victorino, among others.
What does this voting tell us that we can apply to fantasy baseball? Batting average is not the statistic you want to punt in a fantasy league. It counts for more than you think, and it's the main reason Ichiro Suzuki finds his way into the second round most seasons. Fantasy owners can always count on Pujols to hit for power -- maybe not the most power, but close to it -- and a high average. His career mark is .334 over eight terrific seasons, highest among active players. Howard is terrific in his own right, having averaged 51 home runs and 144 RBIs over his first three full seasons in the bigs. He's also hit .268 and .251 in the past two seasons. Adam Dunn he's not, but don't confuse him with Pujols, either.
If I have the first pick in a fantasy draft for 2009, Pujols edges A-Rod for the honor. I'd be pleased to take Howard on the flip for rounds two and three as a top-20 player, but I'd guess his real value is in the 10 to 15 range.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.